A chat with one of our new favorite comedians ahead of her Comedy Central special
She's toured with Tig (Notaro), written monologues for Seth Meyers, released an album, and hosted the whip-smart weekly Whiplash show at UCB in New York. And now Aparna Nancherla is taking the next step on a comic's journey: headlining a Comedy Central show (her episode of The Half Hour will appear this Friday, September 9, at 9 p.m.), where she dives into such riotous subjects as depression, loneliness, and pills. We caught the comedian as she stepped about for her morning coffee.
Where do you get your coffee?
I live in Queens so I have a couple places I go between. This place is called Kinship.
Is it third wave?
I don't know what that is.
That's like La Colombe and Stumptown and Joe—the places where it's like 5 dollars and they care about things like crema and mouthfeel.
I was just talking to someone about how that word is terrible. "Mouthfeel." Don't we already have a word for it? "Texture?"
I can't place your accent. Where are you from? Minnesota? Michigan?
No! I'm actually from outside D.C. It's funny because everyone thinks I'm from the Midwest. I guess maybe I just picked it up the way Madonna picked up a British accent.
Let's talk about depression. It comes up in your comedy. I'm depressed too—I "caught the bug," as comics say. Do you know anyone in this city who isn't depressed?
It's weird, I feel like now you can come out about being depressed. I remember having a friend in L.A. who said, "I don't understand what depression is." That was mind-boggling to me, that someone could exist without having it.
I like it when people ask, "Have you tried exercise?"
It's like "Have you tried moving your body around?" It's so true.
Comics are notoriously sad people. What's that about?
A lot of comedy comes from a shared suffering or pain that people can relate to. It's not like, "Let's do jokes about how great this thing is." Jokes tend to be about how things are weird or don't make sense. Depression is kind of the same, constant questioning. They line up in terms of analyzing everything to their logical end or illogical end.
One time I did a festival in Hawaii, in Maui—
That sounds nice.
It was nice. I just wanted you to know that.
No, I went there and some of the comics were talking about the audiences and how it's so nice there and the pace is so calm, they didn't need to laugh so much. Laughter is a catharsis.
Or maybe you were just terrible.
That's a very nuanced take.
You've worked a ton of odd jobs. What's the worst one?
My friend was preparing middle school students for their entrance exams to high school and she asked if I wanted tutoring work. I thought, "How hard could it be?" She gave me the test prep book—it was a lot of math and science—and I realized I didn't remember how to do a lot of the stuff. I tutored kids with no actual qualifications. We'd both do the same problem and I'd ask, "What did you get?" And then we'd both have to figure it out.
Why did you leave Late Night with Seth Meyers?
Going into it, I had an idea that I didn't really want to write for a talk show anymore. I did the monologue at Seth and that's a very classic late-show experience. I didn't know if this was my bag. The thing with standup is that once you can support yourself doing tours and shows, it's hard to go back to a 9-to-5 office job when you know you can exist without it.
You've done Conan. You have this half hour. What's next?
I recently put out this web series with Jo Firestone for Refinery29. They have a new comedy channel on YouTube. It's absurdist advice on the different life stages being a woman. We had a great time working together, and we're developing a longer-form show together.
Who are the comedians who have helped you coming up?
Most recently Tig Notaro has been huge in championing me and letting me release an album from her new label. That has been so big for me. I opened for Maria Bamford and Paul F. Tompkins. They've been so supportive and encouraging. I've had more good experience with people I look up to than not.
What's your advice for budding comics?
I feel like it's hard to not say advice that has been well-trod. Do what you think is funny, not what the audience thinks is funny. Cultivate your sense of humor first—which is hard, because when you're starting, you're not sure what will get a laugh. But the longer you shy away from it, the harder it will be to find your way back.
How about some very specific advice for budding comics?
Don't hang out in the green room if you're not on the show.